The conversation on academic fashion started with a post where I wondered what to wear while presenting a keynote lecture. People sent me a lot of links and photos, which inspired me to start a new side project: a Pinterest Board on academic fashion. Recently, PhD student of fashion blogs, Rose Findlay wrote a follow up to post with extra tips on dressing.

Over the weeks between the first and second post, two other people took the time to write posts reflecting on their own academic dressing practices. I thought I would publish these pieces together as I think both of them highlight how complex this issue of ‘dressing the part’ is…

The first reflection is from Kate Mansfield who describes herself as: “a knitter, maker of things, and yoga practitioner who also happens to be a PhD student researching chronic widespread pain in general practice at Keele University. Kate writes:

What shall I wear today? A daily debate for many of us. Sometimes it’s a practical issue, ‘will I be wading through mud today?’, ‘yes – wear wellies’, ‘no – choose other shoes’.

Sometimes, the question is laden with a whole bundle of other ‘stuff’. The other ‘stuff’ is a nasty tangle of how the outfit makes me feel about myself and what it makes other people feel about me. Or, to tangle further, what I think it makes others think about me and then how that makes me feel about myself… eep. Let’s not even stray into what making your own clothes does for the what-to-wear-today debate. I knit, I sew, I can often look somewhat ‘handmade’. This varies in its success.

I few months ago, when I saw the PhD comics academic dress code. I paused, looked down and inwardly groaned to note I was, most definitely, clad in my worksuit. Damn it, I hadn’t even bothered to put a bra on. It’s ok, I mainly work from home. The cats don’t care how I look. But, do I? Does it make a difference to me? Short answer. Yes. Longer answer, well it’s a touch more complicated.

On those rare days when the words are there, when I wake in the morning with a chapter almost fully formed in my head, those days where it feels like a race to get to the keyboard to get the words out of brain and on to page. On those wonderful, wished for, blissful days, it really doesn’t matter what I wear. It kinda feels like who I am drops away and all that matters is the work.

Unfortunately those days don’t happen often. They’re usually inspired by a deadline and really, quite honestly, I rather have a whole bundle of normal days. Normal days where I dress in clothes that make me smile, rather than crazed days, where I don’t wash, pull on the first clothes that come out of the dirty washing basket and lose myself in the work. I’d rather be me, be a bit less productive, get in the shower and wear something nice.

At the other end there are the days where it’s tough. Where even sitting down at my desk feels impossible. The days when it feels like the PhD is winning. Those are the days I find myself in a fancy outfit, wearing makeup and a pair of red patent leather Mary-Janes that tie up with bows. It’s likely that it’s partially procrastination. It can take time to put that sort of outfit together.

There’s something else though. I’ve already said I work from home. Most days it’s just me and the cats. I live in a tiny village largely inhabited by the elderly, it sometimes feels like living in a retirement village. I don’t often wear make-up when I go out. I love flat shoes. But, occasionally I find myself sat at my desk, at home, looking like I should be going to a wedding.

It’s about feeling like I can do a PhD. It’s fighting the gremlins. I am professional and hardworking and if I look like I can do it, then I can. It’s ‘fake it till you make it’.

So what about office days and conference presentations? Am I dressing to influence what people think of me or what I think of myself? Of course first impressions matter. When I started clinical work as a med student we were told to imagine what an average old lady would expect a doctor to wear and dress accordingly. In a professional world where individual human interactions are fundamental, those first emotional perceptions set the tone.

But, should it matter how we dress in academia? In a world of anonymous peer review, we try very hard to look past who the author is. Our work should stand alone, separate to how we dress. It should. But it doesn’t. We are humans, no matter how objective our profession teaches us to be, we are emotional creatures, we are at risk of making judgements about the quality of another academic’s work based on how they look.

If the work is good enough, hopefully we’ll overlook an unfavourable first impression, but maybe we won’t. So, just incase, I dress nicely, so I feel good about myself, so that I walk in feeling like a research professional rather than a student and so that I don’t crush that first impression. All that said, I’m still perplexed by the suits people wear to sit in front of computers in offices where they only communicate in virtual space.

Maybe they need to feel the part like I do.

Maybe they’re faking it too.

The irony is I’m going through all this wardrobe angst for one day where for a few hours I get to wear a floppy velvet hat with a silly tassel and I do all my best thinking in the shower…

The second reflection on fashion is from ‘Vintage Murmur’, who describes herself as “a tentative blogger and reluctant tweeter”. She is doing her PhD on close-kin marriages in Ancient Egypt. Vintage Murmur writes:

In my old life I knew where I stood. All the dressing cues were in place: the power-suit, dressing-up and dressing-down, the comfy no one will see me trousers, and the who cares if I’m not trendy shoes.

And then I was catapulted back into university – same place, new century. I’m obviously not a student but I am a student. My age is the first big cue to set me apart. But how to ease into this life? How to find an acceptable middle ground that goes some way to sharing the student experience?  So what to wear at uni?

Here’s how I figure it out:

  • Ripped jeans – no
  • Faded jeans – only if 75% still identifiably blue
  • Hair – no bright reds, oranges, purples or other sunset/sunrise colours
  • Roots – fine if touched up, avoids grey roots bird’s eye view in lecture theatre
  • Full head of silver grey hair – fine, brings out character in style of old silver fox
  • Lashings of eyeliner – great if you look like Joanna Lumley or Sophia Loren
  • Nose studs – only if worn in ears
  • Black leggings – only if concealed
  • Pixie boots – no
  • 5’’ wedges – no
  • 3’’ wedges – OK, stops hem of jeans from fraying and prevents slipping into ripped jeans camp
  • Trainers – yes, nice and comfy for walking between buildings
  • Trendy trainers – probably not
  • Casual coordinated – OK for teaching, maybe with some chunky jewellery?
  • Corporate clothes – forget it
  • Uncoordinated roomy clothes – great for home, who’s watching anyway?

I don’t want to be mutton dressed as lamb, but I don’t want to be mumsy. It’s OK by me – what you see is what you get. But when it comes to clothes, there’s a choice. Even if I had 100mls of botox and a chin full of fillers, I’d still look vintage.

So what about you? Do you feel like there’s a connection between how you dress and how or what you write? Do you have trouble working out how to ‘be a student again’? We’d love to hear about it in the comments – and please keep sending in links for the Pinterest board!

Related posts

What not to wear: the academic edition

What not to wear: the academic edition (part two)